Cheltenham Day Three Preview: Coincidental Evidence
If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, coincidence is when choice greets logic.
In racing it might be termed as reading between the lines, as in our game it pays to take the cynical approach in pre-empting it, like a longer trip coinciding with a handicap debut or a drop in the handicap coinciding with a return to form.
‘Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.’ That was American writer Emma Bull, but it could easily have been Timeform founder Phil Bull, whose lasting legacy is the constant search in racing for those latent levers and poundage pulleys.
Some coincidences are happy, like the case of Dorothy Fletcher who, travelling to Florida for her daughter’s wedding, suffered a heart attack on a flight that was also carrying a team of 15 top cardiologists on their way to a conference. Some are sad, such as the brothers from Bermuda killed a year apart while riding the same moped that was hit by the same taxi and driver on the same road. And if you thought those are scarcely believable, how about when John Butler described it as ‘purely a coincidence’ when the same lad that led in Low Key also led round Indus Valley for a different trainer, Des Donovan, on that day in January 2014 of the four-fold gamble.
Perhaps my favourite coincidence, though, because it speaks to us all, in a ‘have-we-met-before?’ tingle, was the one involving newlyweds Nick and Aimee Wheeler, who found a photo of both of them playing together on a beach as children, eleven years before they met. But something like that would never happen in racing: a story of an irresistible match-up between a pair drawn together by destiny, fatefully finding each other (again) having pursued different directions and alternative avenues, long after their paths had crossed so unwittingly, unconsciously and uneventfully many years before, like a fleeting view through frosted window to a far-reaching future…
A tranquil Thursday at Thurles, twenty-eight months ago, was a chance encounter, and a brief encounter, between the two horses who are front and centre for this year’s Ryanair. How far they’ve come are significant stories in themselves, and their contrasting routes to this same destination influence whose side you’re on in arguably the biggest head-to-head of the entire meeting, for their distinction, for their distinctions, and for the extra heat of the mediation in the Mullins/Michael divorce as to who gets O’Leary’s prized possession, the Ryanair Chase.
Back then, in November 2014, Empire of Dirt was looking a waster, considering the expense, costing €325,000 as a youngster and only getting as far as the second in his second chase that day at Thurles, whereas Un de Sceaux was already a household name for his hurdling heroics, though fuelled by fire, and such eagerness spilled over into a spill over the third-last on that occasion, his fencing debut.
While Un de Sceaux soon soared and stayed there, it’s only been in the last twelve months or so that Empire of Dirt has turned a stuttering career into a dynamic one, with added propulsion this season for joining Gordon Elliott from the retired Colm Murphy, all the way to silver in the Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month.
Their battleground is on neutral ground, on a track they’ve both won before, and the trip is a middle ground, back up for one and back down for the other, but the ground itself may be a deciding factor, the softer the better for Un de Sceaux, while Empire of Dirt doesn’t need it that way, his two classiest wins coming the rare times he’s got away from the mud, including at last year’s Festival.
It’s the sort of cash-compelling clash where you have to put your money where your mouth is, with one making the other a good price, whichever side of the fence you’re looking over, not a race for sitting on it. You’ve got to be strong. And I was. And then the Timeform Preview night happened.
Now I know that we’re supposed to present a united front, and we do try when possible, robust behind ratings, but in certain instances it’s the parts of the sum rather than the sum of the parts, and the beauty of this bout in the Ryanair is that it’s a one-or-the-other opinion-divider. If you were one of the thousands in attendance in Manchester, or one of the millions lip-reading on Facebook Live, you might have noticed that the semi-host was semi-silent during the Ryanair chat as he listened to the lined-up ducks in the row of his mind being short down by made-up minds in the row of the panel, all sharper and shrewder than his, as Cleary, Dixon and Nash each expressed surprise and intent at the over-generous odds of a true top-notcher like Un de Sceaux.
But, unfortunately for them, and for you, this page is my personal space, and the silenced host is about to speak up. I think Empire of Dirt will beat him. And here’s a fast five-point summary as to why.
1) Empire of Dirt is still getting better. There’s just 4 lb between them on Timeform terms as things stand, meaning no margin of error for Un de Sceaux and no surprise if Empire of Dirt catches him up with the momentum he’s got.
2) Empire of Dirt has his conditions. If it’s drying ground I’m pretty sure Empire of Dirt is in the driving seat, less because he needs it and more as Un de Sceaux is at his peak when it’s soft. And then there’s the trip, fine if not finite for the Dirtbag, who’s more of a cruiser than a slugger; and on the topic of trip…
3) Un de Sceaux is playing a different game. It’s not that he doesn’t stay this far, as there are several hurdling wins to categorically say he does, but attacking has always been his game, fostered in two-mile chases this term by taking both the Tingle Creek and Game Spirit by the scruff, some way out. Returning to this trip calls for some conservatism, which may be blunting his very edge.
4) Empire of Dirt has a mate. Two bullets are better than one for a primary target, and Sub Lieutenant will be here to win, but his natural aggressive style could and maybe should shape the race more towards stamina than speed, potentially tilting the scales more towards Empire than Sceaux.
5) Coincidence. Let’s finish where we started, with racing’s cynical relationship with coincidence. Is it a coincidence that O’Leary is playing his ace card in his own race, like Don Cossack in 2015? Is it a coincidence that he’s also sending a lively Lieutenant into the warzone, for some strategic manoeuvres? Coincidence may be God’s way of remaining anonymous, but that’s not Michael O’Leary’s style.
LAY OR PLAY OF THE DAY?
Not just the lay or play of the day, but this is the biggie of the whole week in this category: Yorkhill. Like the Ryanair, we have ourselves an opportunity, whatever your perspective, whether it’s the temptation of odds-against about a horse who would pick this lot up and carry them in a hurdle race, or the compulsion to lay a headlong, headstrong, make-it-up-as-we-go-along chaser.
In the last decade, only ten horses with an equal-or-better hurdles rating to Yorkhill’s substantial 168 have gone chasing. All of them reached 140+ over fences. Eight got to 150+, and just six made it to 160+. It’s a little harder than made out for top hurdlers to turn top chasers. And Yorkhill will need to hit around the 160 mark, for sure, with Disko, Top Notch and Politologue all knocking on that door themselves.
Of the aforementioned ten, however, the only two trained by Mullins were Douvan and Un de Sceaux, neither of which need any virtues extolling, and then there’s Vautour, similar to Yorkhill in that his runway to JLT take-off had a few bumps, before giving a Cheltenham masterclass.
This conundrum is less about figures or feelings and more about faith, and I, for one, have faith that the matchless management team of Mullins and Walsh will have Yorkhill 100% ready and able for his biggest test yet. On hurdles form, he should be odds-on, and I suspect that after three fences of the JLT he will be.
MARK OF THE DAY
138. That was the mark Unowhatimeanharry made light of in a Pertemps Qualifier at Exeter, which left him a choice of the Final, or the Albert Bartlett. The rest is history, still in the making, due another update after the Stayers Hurdle. In the same position this year, on the back of a win in the same Exeter race, in the same stirring style, is Impulsive Star, who’s up 10 lb to 140, making the Pertemps the best option, and he’s the best option in the Pertemps, by far.
As stated earlier, when it’s possible, robust behind ratings, Timeform can and do try to present a united front, and this is a perfect case in point, top-rated and the standout sum of many positive parts. Impulsive Star is our handicap hottie of the 2017 Festival.
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Whatever the collective noun is for National Hunt trainers, a pride is a perfect fit, like nomadic lions competing to claim certain territory, and, truer than for racehorses, a good big ’un will indeed beat a good little ‘un.
‘There is no semblance of any anti-Irish bias,’ said Phil Smith, extinguishing fired-up forces with one hand and expunging higher-up horses with the other, a marked man as the marks man, in an impossible position as the partial peacemaker in racing’s ratings rivalry between nations.